Rebuild Jerusalem: The largest construction projects in Israel's capital (2023)

After 2,000 years in which Jews have prayed for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, one look outside reveals those prayers are being answered.

There is nary a street in the capital city that doesn’t have an urban renewal project of some sort, or a neighborhood not undergoing a major infrastructure overhaul. Instead of complaining that no progress is being made in the city, Jerusalemites now lament that there is too much construction going on at one time.

Armed with the largest municipal budget in the city’s history, Mayor Moshe Lion has moved strongly to implement the campaign promises he made in 2018. The city is cleaner, the master plan for public transportation is moving along briskly, and bulldozers and cranes are everywhere as the Eternal City looks toward the future.

In the meantime, though, traffic jams are everywhere and residents are being forced to bear the brunt of the building and transportation boom that is supposedly for their own good.

“The city of Jerusalem has undergone a real revolution in recent years, in construction, in the development of transportation infrastructure and in the upgrading of public space,” Lion told the Magazine in a statement.

“In the not-too-distant future, a number of light rail lines will operate, the skyline of the entrance to the city will change, a land reserve will be created on Begin Road and tens of thousands of housing units will be built. The city of Jerusalem will maintain its character along with the development of infrastructure and advanced employment centers, which will put it in line with the most advanced cities in the world. The development momentum that is sweeping the city today will make it an attractive destination for populations from all over the country.”

If the early Zionist leaders, under constant threat of annihilation, built Jerusalem as quickly as possible to solve their immediate needs, Jerusalem in 2021 is concerned with scaling for decades of future growth.

Rebuild Jerusalem: The largest construction projects in Israel's capital (1) CITY ENGINEER Yoel Even. (credit: SASSON TIRAM)

“Jerusalem has close to a million residents today,” says city engineer Yoel Even, the person in charge of planning and managing the city’s development. “It has grown from just 600,000 20 years ago, and will have 1.4-1.5 million residents 20 years from now. We are building with an eye toward that time, preparing for the city’s employment, transportation, housing, and lifestyle needs decades down the road. We believe that the more we build, the more demand there will be, and it is important that we stay a step ahead.”

In a discussion with the Magazine, Even extensively explained what he sees as the city’s largest projects under development.

FIRST, AND most significant, is the light rail. Jerusalem is investing heavily in its public transportation system, with a crisscrossing series of rail lines at the heart of everything.

“This is the future of the city,” Even says.

Currently, Jerusalem has one line, known as the Red Line, which extends from Pisgat Ze’ev in the north to Mount Herzl in the west. Work is currently underway to extend that line up toward Neveh Ya’acov, and down toward the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center, with plans to complete that by 2023.

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Another four lines are planned after that. The Green Line will stretch from Gilo in the south of the city to French Hill in the north, with spur lines branching off toward the stadium complex in Malha and in Givat Shaul toward Har Nof. The initial launch of that line is planned for 2024, with full operations in 2025.

Next, the 31-kilometer Blue Line will run from Gilo to Ramot, with spur lines branching off from Geula to Ramat Eshkol, and from the Khan Theater near First Station to Talpiot and Malha. This is the line that will run through Emek Refaim, a plan that was fought by local activists for more than three years. Construction on parts of this line is planned to begin in the coming months. It will not be fully operational until at least 2030, with a partial launch scheduled for 2027, the municipality says.

After these, a 6.5-km. Yellow Line is planned to connect the museum and government quarters to the entrance to the city via Ruppin Blvd. Then, a 16-km. Brown Line will extend from the Kalandiya checkpoint to Sur Bahir and Umm Leeson, near Ramat Rachel, through the existing red route in Shuafat and Road 1. These lines are in the early planning stages.

Together, these lines will connect residential and employment centers and make it easy to get around without a private car, the municipality says. There are many other transportation projects in the works, but we’ll get back to them later.

Rebuild Jerusalem: The largest construction projects in Israel's capital (2)‘WE ARE looking far into the future while remaining connected to what is happening on the ground.’ (credit: Dagan Visual Solutions/ Kolker Epstein Architects)

THE SECOND-largest project in the city, Even says, is the Jerusalem Gateway project at the entrance to the city. The area near the central bus station and the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station, once underused, is now the city’s biggest construction site. Being developed are 24 large buildings, including nine skyscrapers, over an area of 305 dunams, of which about 163 dunams will be public space. Once it is completed, it will have 438,000 square meters of office space to enable the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the city, the municipality says. It will also include 97,000 square meters of commercial space, 1,100 housing units, 286,000 square meters of culture and public areas, and about 2,000 hotel rooms.

This year, the city is working to complete the skeleton work of the five-story underground parking lot in Sderot Shazar, which will contain about 1,300 parking spaces. The parking lot should be completed in 2023, and the project as a whole is slated to be finished in 2029, the municipality said.

“In our mapping of the current and future demand for office space in the city, we see great need for new places for employment at the entrance to the city,” Even says. “It is currently very difficult to find office space in Jerusalem, and I am very optimistic that this project will provide a supply that will be needed by the city for many years.”

THIRD IS a massive plan to build a new neighborhood over the Begin Expressway between Ruppin Street and Givat Mordechai, by connecting the elevations on both sides of the road to create a huge ‘roof’, a tunnel over the road. On top of this land, the city wants to build a public area that would connect Beit Hakerem to the Kiryat Hamemshala government campus, with housing, hotels, office buildings, and parks above. This project is slated to be approved next year, with building starting by 2024. Once the project is completed seven to eight years later, it will include 1,800 housing units and 300 hotel rooms, Even says.

FOURTH IS the Talpiot master plan, designed to accelerate the neighborhood’s transition from a drab industrial zone to an employment, tech and culture center. This development includes dozens of new commercial and residential buildings up to 30 stories high, creating some 8,600 new housing units and 1.3 million square meters of commercial space. There will also be open areas and public playgrounds, with an emphasis on accessible public transportation. The plan stipulates that some housing in the neighborhood be set aside as smaller, low-budget apartments for young residents. Schools, synagogues, parks, sports and health facilities are also planned.

FIFTH IS the plan for Jerusalem’s new parks. Kiryat Hayovel is set to get a new 200-acre park that will include an artificial lake, as well as game facilities, bicycle trails and many green spaces. The park would finally use the under-developed area in the valley known as “Asbestonim Wadi.” Lion has referred to it as “Kiryat Hayovel’s Sacher Park,” although it will actually be five times the size of the city’s largest public park once it is done. Also under development is the Jerusalem Metropolitan Park, a 43-kilometer park stretching from the Arazim Valley near Mevaseret Zion, to Motza valley to the west and the Refaim valley in the south. And in east Jerusalem, Park Kidron will provide a large park equivalent in size to Gan Sacher in the Kidron Valley, Even noted.

FINALLY, we have the huge Silicon Wadi project in east Jerusalem, which will add 250,000 square meters of commercial and office space in Wadi al-Joz. This project, approved last November, would create a technology hub that could employ as many as 10,000 Israeli Arabs from Jerusalem and its outskirts. This would be one of the biggest public investments ever made in east Jerusalem, and could have a significant impact on opening up opportunities in east Jerusalem and improving the socio-economic situation of its 350,000 residents. Other employment centers, including one in Isawiya, are also in development for the Arab population.

“The goal here is to create an ecosystem of employment that is very needed in east Jerusalem and will help create significant employment for the whole area,” Even says.

There are many more projects that can be discussed, from construction in the Western Wall Plaza to a new hotel district in Armon HaNatziv overlooking the Haas Promenade to the Mekorot water company’s massive upgrade of Jerusalem’s water infrastructure. But for now, we’ll move on to housing.

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IT OFTEN SEEMS like there are residential building projects being done on nearly every block in the city. Most are carried under one of two types of urban renewal plans: the Tama 38 or Pinui-Binui models.

Tama 38 is a national initiative designed to encourage residents of old apartment buildings to strengthen their foundations in order to meet the country’s new building codes providing protection against earthquakes. Contractors can upgrade building foundations and provide other benefits (usually extra rooms) to tenants in exchange for the rights to build extra apartments on the roof, which it would sell at a profit. It’s a win-win arrangement for everyone, at least in theory: Apartment owners get their apartments enlarged for free, contractors are given profitable new projects, building structures are updated, and cities gain new urban housing units in locations where there is no new land available.

There is talk that the nationwide Tama 38 plan may be discontinued in late 2022, and many municipalities have complained that it undermines their city planning and quality of life. However, Jerusalem has embraced the plan, with more than 150 projects underway.

In the more ambitious Pinui-Binui evacuation and reconstruction projects, old buildings are completely razed and then replaced with larger, more modern residential buildings that can offer as many as four times as many units on the same piece of land. These are centrally planned by the municipality, and require the consent of the building tenants. These too, offer benefits for everyone involved.

However, the reality is not always as rosy for the neighborhood as planned, and there are often unintended side effects. Adding new apartments to neighborhoods that are already crowded can easily lead to insufficient parking, schools and other public resources. In other places, there are concerns that adding high-rises in places where most buildings are four stories tall or less will destroy the community’s character and quality of life.

“The new master plan for our neighborhood allows for tearing down six-story buildings on Tchernichovsky and Herzog and replacing them with high-rises of up to 20 stories,” says Meir Harel, one of a group of neighborhood activists fighting the plan. “If they allow this, it would create a wall of high rises around the Emek Hamatzlevah Park, blocking the air, the sun and the beautiful views for all of the streets behind the wall. The entire neighborhood would be ruined for the sake of adding extra housing units.”

Residents of the neighborhood were alerted several years ago that the municipality had approved three towers of up to 20 floors in a Pinui-Binui project on the corner of Tchernichovsky and Kimchi, a spot that is already somewhat maxed out in terms of public space. Activists have been fighting the plan, which will be up for debate again in December.

“This is the first major case that will set a precedent for the neighborhood,” Harel says. “But even if we win in December, it might not stop the building from happening. This neighborhood will have many more fights after that.”

These types of battles may play themselves out many times over. In Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem, for example, there is a plan to add more than 1,000 apartments in anticipation of the light rail line being built there. Similar projects are being promoted in Malha, Gonenim, French Hill, Armon Hanatziv, Gilo, ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Sanhedria and Neveh Ya’acov, and in Arab areas like Beit Hanina and Shuafat.

There are also plans awaiting final approval to add thousands of new housing units in Givat Hamatos, Har Homa, and Givat Masua. Plans are also awaiting approval to build 5,000 new units in Reches Lavan in the Jerusalem Hills, southwest of the city, despite long-standing objections that the building would destroy one of the city’s last nature reserves.

Regarding Reches Lavan, the mayor also said in May that the municipality will work to declare it and its springs, and later Nahal Refaim, as a national park under the National Parks Law, which will ensure the preservation of the valley and its values for generations. Lion also announced that he had informed the planning and construction committee that the Jerusalem municipality would not allow development and construction on the slopes of Hadassah and its surroundings, except for a natural expansion of the hospital.

As to building heights, the city’s guidelines allow for up to 30 stories along the light rail lines, and as many as 40 stories in the Jerusalem Gateway project, the municipality clarified. Even concedes that there are challenges, but says that the city has planned for these issues.

“In historic neighborhoods like Nahlaot, Rehavia, Talbieh, German Colony and Katamon, we are interested in preserving their historic character, and we believe that adding tall buildings inside the neighborhoods would ruin that character,” Even says. “But we made a policy decision that much taller buildings could be built along outer streets where the light rail will be routed. Those streets are generally made wider so they can handle the train infrastructure, and they are better suited to handle large building spaces.”

Even insists that the dangers of neighborhood congestion are considered whenever the municipality approves any building.

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“Every project that is proposed must solve for its public needs from the beginning, with enough public space, parking and community services for the residents,” Even says. “In areas where there is a lot of building being done simultaneously, we create an action plan for the neighborhood so we can map out the necessary community infrastructures. I see this as one of the most significant parts of my work, to make sure that public planning isn’t only for housing, but takes everything into account together.

“In cases where many Tama 38 projects are being built in close proximity, we obviously don’t expect each individual building contractor to take into account a comprehensive approach to the area. But the city will map out the area and create an action plan to help make it work better.”

Harel is unimpressed with Even’s response.

“He was very superficial, and didn’t look very deeply into our arguments,” Harel says. “He refused to meet with us. He is only driven by increasing the number of housing units.”

ONE OF THE UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES of Jerusalem’s urban planning is mixed-use development, the concept that neighborhoods should integrate several different fields within the same space.

“It used to be that land use was compartmentalized,” explains Moshe Cornfeld, a veteran commercial and residential real estate agent and owner of “The idea was that you would live in one area, work in another area and shop somewhere else. But now, the trend in urban planning is that all those things should be right nearby. This type of approach encourages local involvement, minimizes traffic congestion, encourages walking and helps avoid situations like you see in some cities where office buildings are full during the day but you’d be afraid to walk by yourself there at night.

“We’re seeing that in Talpiot, where they want to change the old industrial zone into a fully integrated area with apartments, stores, office buildings and leisure,” Cornfeld says. “You can also see this being done in other neighborhoods like Ramot, Shamgar, and in the Shukenyon on Agrippas Street, where they are building new apartments above old malls. Originally, the plan for the entrance to the city was mainly focused on commercial and office space, but they recently added a plan to build about a 1,000 tiny 30- to 50-meter apartment units there.

“In Talpiot, there were people who had wanted to construct big office buildings for years, but it never made financial sense to do so in the midst of the industrial zone,” Cornfeld noted. “Now that there are plans to rework the neighborhood and promote it as a mixed-use area, it makes more financial sense. And the fact that Jerusalem is promoting itself as a business destination with the Jerusalem Gateway office buildings will strengthen the office spaces in Talpiot, as well.”

Rebuild Jerusalem: The largest construction projects in Israel's capital (3)‘IN TALPIOT, there were people who had wanted to construct big office buildings for years.’ (credit: Molcho Architects)

EXPANDING JERUSALEM’S transportation infrastructure is one of the city planners’ biggest concerns. The city’s old and congested roads, along with poor parking options, make new thinking in this realm a top priority. Jerusalem’s light rail project is a big start in this direction, but there is more underway.

For one, Egged’s bus monopoly in the capital city is finally coming to an end in October. Following years of complaints about the service provided by the country’s oldest and largest bus company, the Transportation Ministry recently ruled that other bus companies will be allowed to compete.

Starting after the September holidays, Superbus will take over about 25 routes in the center of the city in the first phase, with the goal of running about 57 lines, including at least 17 new routes, within two years. Superbus’s lines will run primarily through the city center, while Egged will retain control over lines in the southern neighborhoods. The winner of a tender for the northern part of the city may be announced in the coming weeks.

Bus riders in Jerusalem frequently complain about buses running behind schedule, or not at all. Under the new system, if there is poor service, a line can be transferred to a new operator.

The move will also force the companies to add more frequent and more efficient bus routes to connect centers of employment with residential areas. Thus, for example, a bus ride from Har Homa to Givat Shaul could take 30-40 minutes, instead of several hours, according to former city council representative Elad Malka, who was one of the driving forces behind the reform.

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Meanwhile, Jerusalem is looking to encourage more residents to commute by bike, with 200 km. of bike trails to be paved throughout the city and in parks. Routes are planned through neighborhoods and along major roads in order to provide safe and fast access to the city center, commercial areas and train stations.

Some 45 km. of bike paths have already been laid throughout the city, although critics note that most of these are inside parks and not along main roads. That makes them more useful for sport than replacing cars for commuting. Another 70 km. are in the planning and implementation stages, with more expected by 2023, the municipality says.

The city is looking to make it easier to access bikes as well. In the past several months, a new bike rental service started being rolled out in Jerusalem, with some 200 bicycles available for rent in 25 stations across the city. Riders can hop on and off either electric or non-motorized bikes by registering for the app.

The city has also been evaluating allowing scooter-sharing services like Bird and Lime that are popular in Tel Aviv and other large cities around the world. A pilot test has been conducted in the Har Hotzvim technology park, and the city is analyzing the results, a spokesman for the municipality said. Such scooters have become very popular for inexpensive urban transportation, but they also encourage reckless riding, and are seen as safety hazards and public nuisances.

At the same time, new roads are being constructed to ease some of that congestion. Among these are Highway 16, which is being built to provide an additional entrance to the city through the Motza interchange and is expected to open in 2023. The project, which is expected to cost more than a billion shekels, will connect to the Begin Expressway and southern neighborhoods with a road that includes several kilometers of underground tunnels stretching from the Har Nof neighborhood down Shmuel Bait Street toward the Givat Mordechai intersection. There have been suspicions that these tunnels were the cause of the giant sinkhole that suddenly opened up under the parking lot at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in June, and Netivei Israel, the company in charge of the road’s construction, will take responsibility for fixing it, the municipality said.

Other roads and tunnels under construction include widening Route 1 and expanding the Sakharov Interchange at the entrance to the city; the expansion of the Route 60 tunnel road at the southern entrance to the city; building 4.4 km of underground tunnels at the French Hill Junction; a significant road in east Jerusalem that will connect Isawiya in the north to Sur Bahir in the south, and many others.

MANY HAVE complained that Jerusalem is building too much at one time, making it very difficult to live here. Others are doubtful whether there is even a need for so many office buildings. Even understands the criticism, but says that the work is essential for the city’s future.

“Jerusalem is a city that is growing very quickly, and will continue to grow the more we prepare for it,” Even says. “If we are going to have 1.4 to 1.5 million residents in 20 years, we need to prepare spaces for employment and places to live.

“Every detail is being planned very carefully to make sure that projects support themselves and work together, with enough public facilities and without causing congestion,” Even says. “Government offices will be moving to Jerusalem, and there will be needs for more workspaces, more housing.

“Jerusalem is the only city in Israel where the demand for employment exceeds the supply. There is a serious shortage of office space in Jerusalem, and the need for more business facilities is great. I understand that coronavirus has changed many realities with regard to employment, but we believe that the new buildings at the entrance to the city will provide a dramatic benefit for the entire city.

“Regarding housing, I can’t predict market prices in the future, but we believe there will always be more demand than supply, no matter how many units we build. We see that Jerusalem will always continue to attract more people, and the more we build, the more people will come.

“Do we need to be doing all this building now? Absolutely. Jerusalem has fallen behind with infrastructure in previous years, but we have made significant jumps in recent years, to the point where we are now among the top cities in the country in terms of infrastructure. It is difficult, but we will be reaping the rewards for all this work for many years in the future.”

Jerusalem’s layout on the map is a hodgepodge of projects, failed and successful, planned by millennia of builders, from King David, Herod and the Romans to the Ottoman and British empires. Even is confident that the city’s current plans will successfully bridge what currently is to what the future can be.

“I have confidence in everything we are doing,” he says. “If there is a project we aren’t sure about, we won’t do it. We are looking far into the future while remaining connected to what is happening on the ground. And the people who never took Jerusalem seriously are taking notice.” 

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